MONTPELIER -- A proposal to regulate toxic chemicals found in products sold in the state would be one of the toughest in the nation, business groups say, and now lawmakers are considering scaling it back.
Rep. David Deen, D-Putney, chair of the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, said Thursday the bill could soon be "harmonized" with Washington state's reporting program for chemicals found only in children's products.
"We want to do what's helpful to protect the people of Vermont. And if harmonizing with other states gets us a level of protection we do not have now - and gets businesses on board, at least neutral about the bill - yeah, I think that's where it's headed," he said.
Retailers, electronics producers, and automobile and toy manufacturers this week testified against a bill, S.239, designed to give the Vermont Department of Health the authority to require companies to disclose, label or not sell products containing chemicals it considered toxic to human health.
Business groups have cast their weight behind an effort to scale back the bill and let the federal government take on the issue, citing the costs to comply with a "patchwork" of state regulations and reporting fees.
Greg Costa, a lobbyist with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, testified before the committee Wednesday to oppose the bill because he said it would impose costs on businesses that they would then pass on to consumers.
"When we're talking about duplicating and really starting from square one a process that already exists at the federal level, that can be improved upon, it's quite an undertaking and I'm not sure it has the same cost-benefit ratio to consumers as it might seem on paper," Costa said.
Andy Hackman, a lobbyist for the Toy Industry Association, which represents about 35 companies in Vermont, estimated the Washington program will cost the toy industry about $27.6 million in the first year for paperwork and testing. Imposing additional reporting requirements in Vermont will increase that cost, he said.
"Consistency with other states is absolutely critical to try to avoid some of the costs that we have already incurred to show compliance," Hackman said.
Representatives from the retail industry in Vermont voiced similar concerns.
"Maine, Washington, California and Europe have already taken action. Vermont should harmonize with these efforts," Tasha Wallis, executive director of the Vermont Retailers Association, told lawmakers. "I really think that that makes sense for a really small state where you really want to achieve something."
She said it would be time consuming for retailers to understand and identify the chemicals in their products.
"It can take a while for a retailer to figure out what's in a product if you are looking at a chemical that has not been examined before," Wallis said.
Deen pointed out the potential cost to the state if it administered a program that regulated all consumer products, such as a program in California.
"They have resources that we simply do not have - they do their own testing, they do their own screening, they've got 39 people," he said.
The program in Washington is weaker than the proposal in Vermont, consumer advocates say, because it only requires companies to report (and not always remove) chemicals found in children's products.
Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which supported the original bill, supports looking to other states for a list of chemicals. But a bill that mirrors Washington's would take away the health department's authority to require chemicals to be labeled or banned from all consumer products.
"That's not an achievement we're trying to bring about here. We're actually trying to make products safer so that fewer people get sick," he said. "And that will come when we get rid of those dangerous chemicals."
Vermont has passed legislation to regulate the use of certain chemicals one at a time, including flame retardants, Bisphenol A (BPA), mercury and lead. The new proposal would allow the health department to expand this list every other year without legislative approval.
"That was an important part of what made this bill different from the power that we already had - to come to the Legislature every year, chemical by chemical. It's very important to us that the state retain the authority to take action once the chemicals have been identified," Burns said.
Lauren Hierl, a lobbyist with the Vermont Conservation Voters, a political arm of an environmental research and advocacy group, said stakeholders on both sides of the issue have already worked out a compromise bill to include more involvement from businesses in the decision to regulate chemicals.
She opposes removing the health department's authority to regulate chemicals.
"That would be a huge downgrade in public health protection if they go that direction," she said.
Justin Johnson, deputy secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, told lawmakers they should work with other states to regulate the chemicals because little is happening on the federal level.
"There's a lot going on, but nothing is happening," he said. "I'm not expecting action anytime soon."
Johnson chairs the Cross-Media Committee of the Environmental Council of the States, an association of state environmental agency leaders. He has been working with other states to discuss the phase-in of similar programs.
"I would support the idea that Vermont not do this on their own - that Vermont needs to be working with other states," Johnson said. If the feds can't get their act together, then Vermont should work with a state or states to do something that is robust and actually gets to the heart of the problem but doesn't put it all on Vermont, because we don't have the resources to do everything."
The Department of Health has said it can compose a list without additional resources.
Deen said Vermont could add additional provisions to Washington's policy.
"I don't mean that Vermont would be a carbon copy with Washington," he said. "There are just some issues that Washington isn't to going to serve to meet the Vermont's needs. So there will be difference."
Nonetheless, he said Vermont's policy would look like "a children's product bill, not a consumer product bill."